Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Ultimate Winter Redskin

(No, the title of this post is not meant to deride Native Americans of the First Nations, nor does it have anything to do with any sports team.)

I'm in the music office at the academy. As I have been so much over the past month, I am seated behind that cool-looking G5 transferring the orchestral score of the suite of tunes from DragonQuest IV (yes, the TV game) to individual sheet music. That thing is bloody LONG; eleven movements (twelve if you count "Balloon Ride" and "Sea Breeze" as separate, because they really are), each about five to six minutes in length. Then there's all those notes. Long, sustained tones make for fast work, but even with all of Sibelius' hot keys, lots of sixteenth notes, funky rhythms, and sex- or septuplets make for some bloody tedious work. The end is in sight, but I'm really starting to feel worn out by this.

Then Mr. Ogawa walks over to the refrigerator, on top of which a pot is bubbling atop a sort of electric hot plate. He takes the lid off, and a wonderful smell begins to fill the room. My spirits raise along with the waft of steam. Good things are coming soon. It's a seasonal snack that I've fortunately been enjoying a lot while hopefully not giving myself repetitive stress syndrome. It is...

...sweet potatoes...?

The native sweet potato is called satsumaimo (薩摩芋) in Japanese. The first two Chinese characters (which are too difficult for most Japanese to remember, so they usually use phonetic kana instead), which read "Satsuma" (lit. "Touching Buddha"), come from the name of an ancient province which used to span the southern part of the island of Kyushu. The third character means "(sweet) potato", and it also appears in the word jagaimo (literally "Jakarta potato", since they were originally imported from Indonesia), which means "potato" as we understand it in the West.

Satsumaimo seem to be one of the last crops harvested during the year, as mid autumn is when the neighbors suddenly start showing up with boxloads of them (a fringe benefit of living in farm country). The fact that they keep very well all through the winter means that there is always a good supply of them clear through till spring.

There are many different ways of preparing sweet potatoes here, too. Sliced and boiled is, of course, the most common for the dinner table, but many recipes exist for preparing everything from sweet potato candy to mashed sweet potatoes combined with chestnuts (a New Year dish that we always enjoy). However, since long ago, by far the most common (and most fun) way to eat satsumaimo is to wrap them up in foil (or in the old-fashioned way, i.e. leaves) and toss them in a pile of raked-up fallen autumn leaves, burn the pile, and then dig out the cooked sweet potatoes and eat them. These surprisingly enjoyable treats are called simply "yakiimo" (lit. "cooked potato"). It is also quite common to make yakiimo during winter by wrapping up sweet potatoes in foil and leaving them on top of the stove alongside of a kettle of water, allowing you to heat your room and enjoy tea and snacks all in one go!

It is also an old tradition to slice and dry sweet potatoes, making a snack that looks something like greenish-gold jerky but has a flavor all its own. One of the English teachers at my school always brings a box of them on Entrance Exam Day (tinny, diminished seventh fanfare) so we have something a bit more wholesome than chocolate and rice crackers to munch on while marking tests.

Actually, Mr. Ogawa has been steaming his satsumaimo this year using an interesting method that he improvised himself. Apparently his family got more of them than they knew what to do with, so, in classic Monsieur Ogawa style, he decided to try something new. He has been using an interesting combination of a saucepan, a ceramic bowl, a quantity of water, and careful tweaking around of the temperature setting at different times to produce something that is a bit firmer and more flavorful than the usual baked or broiled variety. (Viva le Maestro!) He has been anxiously trying out his new recipe on as much of the faculty as possible. There have been a few naysayers among the more stone-headed traditionalists, but for the most part the reaction has been good.

I know I'm enjoying these things!

Now I wonder if I should give him the bagful of them from my in-laws...


  • Those sound quite tasty. Is it alright if I pick one little factual problem out of your entire post, use it to say all your points are wrong and dishonest, choose a tabletop book as proof, call you names, and then wonder why people don't consider my viewpoint?

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 12:09 AM  

  • That comment above was too silly. Please carry on with actual discussions about sweet potatoes.

    By Anonymous Graham Chapman, at 12:12 AM  

  • You mean Superlative Chilled Native American Sweet Potatoes, I think.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:13 AM  

  • How to Blog your way to a book!

    Think of each post as a chapter, and voila!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:48 AM  

  • Satsumaimo were a big surprise to me when I moved here. Never a big fan of the variety we had in California and Hawaii, but my first taste of satsumaimo was all it took get me hooked on them.

    I like them prepared in any way, but a favorite of mine is sliced and cooked with apple slices in milk, with a little sugar and butter. Mmmmm.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 12:08 PM  

  • wow.. I have the opportunity to taste this in Japan, even though we have similiar kind in Singapore, Singaporean doesn't eat such things often, probably there are too much 'junk' to eat in a city.

    Yes, very nice, very sweet, tender and yummy!

    By Blogger Robin, at 12:58 PM  

  • Kanso-imo(乾燥芋)or Hoshi-imo(干し芋)is one of the specialities in Ibaraki. They are sliced, steamed and dried in the sun for a few days. I like softer ones than harder ones. Some like them heated on an old type of heater.
    Yaki-imo(焼き芋)is also popular throughout Japan, especially, baked in small heated stones.
    Enjoy sweet potatoes.

    By Anonymous j-apricot, at 7:08 PM  

  • Moody, eater of yams.

    By Blogger DewKid, at 9:13 AM  

  • Redskins? They didnt make to the Superbowl did they????

    By Blogger Vulgarius, at 4:51 AM  

  • As Moody always says: "I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam"...

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:47 PM  

  • Well, blow me down!

    Waitsk jusk a minute!

    gaxvipmg - I mountedsk one o' these babiesk on me boat, n' pumped Bluto's hide full o' 50 cal. leadsk!
    TOOT TOOT!!!!

    By Anonymous Popeye, at 11:59 PM  

  • May I eat Tea I Yam?

    (why isn't the word Palindrome a Palindrome?)

    By Blogger DewKid, at 4:39 AM  

  • Oops, that wasn't a perfect palindrome. Tae?

    Bad Toad. Baaaad Toad. (being swatted with a flyswatter)

    By Blogger DewKid, at 4:40 AM  

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